As we close in on tonight’s opener at Staples Center, I’d like to touch on a subject that had Kings fans in gear all summer long. “Fuc*! Another blog about Kovalchuk?!?” Not really, folks, but on two teams that have been affected by the Russian winger; Two teams we will see tonight, as the Kings host the Atlanta Thrashers. Atlanta officially cut ties with Ilya Kovalchuk on February 4th of last season, a move that was terribly foreseen. Kovalchuk was simply unhappy. Playing in Atlanta for four and a half seasons, the Thrashers made the playoffs only once, and were eliminated in quick, brutal fashion. Also, take into account that Atlanta may be the worst-placed NHL franchise ever. Yes, ever. With Kovalchuk’s stardom, a bad team and a brutal hockey town just didn’t make sense. You can’t blame the guy for wanting to leave. And that, he did. Kovalchuk fled to a solid contender, but Atlanta’s demands weren’t cheap. The Thrashers received three players in the deal, as well as a first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and a swap of New Jersey’s second-round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. As for Los Angeles’ take in the Kovalchuk saga, well you know what happened. Below I’ll break down why both of these teams have improved chances of long-term success without Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kings Will Prosper Without Ilya: As soon as off-season chat centered in on available free agents, countless analysts, reporters, scouts, yourself, tabbed Kovalchuk joining the Kings a possibility, and an excellent one at that. And why not? The Kings made it clear they needed to sign a premier left-winger. The drama was prolonged for months, and Kovalchuk decided against the Kings. No reason to hop on that train again, you know the story. The Kings went out and signed a decent winger in Alexei Ponikarovsky, nothing to be ecstatic about, but fills a void with a proven player. This is where most fans struggled to see the good in failing to sign Kovalchuk. The Kings don’t need an instant fix, they need to protect and continue to build their young core. The Kings don’t need a high profile ego in their locker room. Kovalchuk would have immediately become a fixture in the offense, demanding respect and attention. This is exactly what the Kings aren’t, and that is why their rebuilding process is flourishing. A locker room full of young talent has formed a close-knit camaraderie. A group of humble, yet respectable veterans is guiding their growth. A big name carrying big money – big ego baggage isn’t necessary. Don’t get me wrong, turning down a player of Kovalchuk’s stature sounds crazy, but it’s not what the Kings need. I’m talking future here, and the Kings have players to lock up. We now have more cap space to keep the players that have turned this franchise into a playoff contender, which is our most important asset. The bottom line is, Dean Lombardi could have signed Kovalchuk. The money wasn’t worth it, and the talent that has developed in Los Angeles deserves his full attention. We’re better off without Ilya, and tonight’s opponent, the Atlanta Thrashers, are floating in a similar boat.
New Era In Atlanta: In almost five seasons with the Thrashers, the 27 year-old Russian put up 220 goals and 190 assists. How could a team possibly improve without the offensive weapon that provided 410 points in less than five years? There was never a supporting cast, and it is common knowledge that no team can find success on the shoulders of one player. The draft selections didn’t provide the immediate help needed, and Atlanta was often a one-man show. Now starting their first season without the long-time face of the franchise, you can’t help but honor the steps taken to develop a new identity. The assets gained in the trade with New Jersey was an accomplishment in itself. Niclas Bergfors tallied 44 points in his first full season. Just 23 years old, he will do nothing but stabilize a young offense that has the works to be a powerhouse in two years. Johnny Oduya isn’t a household name, but has been a staple on New Jersey’s blue line the past four seasons. That can’t be bad, right? The selection of Alexander Burmistrov in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft adds more depth to their group of youthful forwards. Speaking of the draft, Atlanta’s first round selections from the past two years Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian are on the verge of becoming elite players, and developing those two with dependable surroundings is crucial. Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, and Dustin Byfuglien, offseason acquisitions from the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks adds experience to the talent. Atlanta has done a phenomenal job in recovering from the loss of Kovalchuk. Quite honestly, it has to be a breath of fresh air for the fans in Atlanta, if they exist. It may even be accurate to say this Thrashers club is a mirrored image of the Kings just two years ago, if not better. They finally have a plan, and it has potential. To build a lineup with such a promising future is impressive in itself, and in less than a year removed from having the greedy winger Kings fans have come to hate? Even Better. Good for you, Atlanta.